Powered by the sun: This uber-efficient home has all the bells and whistles
Rick Pratt loves to build projects from the ground up.
He did it with Adventure Trekkers, a mountain biking travel co-op he started with another business partner in 1980. He did it in 1985 when he started a construction company in Denver called Classic Homeworks. And he did it again in 2012 when he and his wife started AION Investments so they could invest in single-family homes across the state.
Now retired, Pratt’s latest project is to build an uber-efficient home near Silverthorne.
“My motivation to build this complicated house is a result of my desire to build a home that has minimal impact on the environment,” Pratt wrote in an email. “When completed, we will be getting all our energy for this home and for all the miles driven with our electric car from solar.”
Pratt and his wife also wanted to build the 3,000-square-foot house to leave a legacy for their children. Originally from Denver, the couple always had a condo in Summit County and decided to move here permanently.
While looking to buy a house, the couple stumbled on a property with impeccable views in the Mesa Cortina neighborhood. Pratt’s construction background kicked into high gear when he realized that if they oriented the house a certain way, not only would it offer magnificent views but it also would be the perfect spot to install solar panels on the roof.
“When I started thinking about building, my old personality as a green builder in Denver in the ’90s and early 2000s kicked in, and I realized I didn’t want to build just any old house,” Pratt said. “I wanted to build the house that matched my own personal belief systems, my own ethics that go back decades. … I couldn’t just build another typical mountain home.”
Just over a month later in August, the property was theirs, and they officially broke ground a couple of months after that.
Since then, the project’s been full-steam ahead. Pratt hired Cody and Lisa Farmer of MainStream Corp. for their consulting services and to offer expert advice about passive houses.
According to Passive House Institute U.S., passive building includes a set of design principles used to attain a quantifiable and rigorous level of energy efficiency. Some of these principles include making the building airtight, installing high-performance windows, using some form of balanced heat- and moisture-recovery ventilation, and installing continuous insulation around the house.
“It’s basically like your Sam’s Club membership where you pay a couple hundred bucks per year to get discounts on groceries for that year,” said Cody Farmer, vice president of MainStream. “Investing in passive housing is like prepaying your energy bill 70% to 90% lower than the life of the building compared to a code building.”
Once finished, the Pratts’ new residence will have many of these energy-efficient features.
Pratt explained that to make the home as energy-efficient as possible, it needed to be airtight, and it needed to have a lot of insulation. Pratt compared the idea to putting on a large puffy jacket. The jacket keeps you warm, but if there are rips, it doesn’t retain nearly as much heat.
“What they’ve learned is that airtightness is actually more important for energy efficiency than lots of insulation,” Pratt said. “This is what Cody and Lisa can model in their software. I can tell them that we’re going to reach a certain level of airtightness, and that will then tell us how much insulation we’ll need after that and how energy-efficient our home could be. If it’s more airtight, it becomes more energy-efficient quicker than adding extra insulation.”
Most, if not all, of the features installed in the house directly impact this goal. For example, the triple- and quadruple-paned windows and energy-efficient doors help keep the home sealed. Plus, the walls are more than double the thickness of a typical home, with 16 inches of insulation.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy features of the house is the Zehnder energy recovery ventilation system. Because the home needs to be so impenetrable, moisture buildup is a cause for concern. To prevent this issue, the couple is installing a ventilation system that constantly circulates the air.
“Because it’s going to be so tight, we have to evacuate the stale air in here and put in fresh air on a regular basis,” Pratt said. “Otherwise all the moisture we make from showering and cooking and breathing and exercising will get trapped inside the house.”
To do this, the system will recirculate the air 24 hours a day, warming the air from outside by using the stale air from inside without contaminating the fresh air. When showering or cooking, the couple can flip on a “boost” switch that kicks the ventilation system into high gear for 15 minutes.
Pratt also plans to install solar panels on the roof, which will provide enough energy for heating and cooling as well as running all the appliances and equipment, including a steam shower, hot tub, electric car and Deana Pratt’s glass kiln.
By the time it’s finished, the house will have all Energy Star-rated appliances, insulated hot water pipes — which include a recirculation pump to reduce water waste and provide instant hot water at every faucet — plus insulated garage doors.
Pratt said the year of hard work will be worth it.
“Besides just being an intellectually challenging, exciting and motivating project for me, this house is going to have really clean energy,” Pratt said. “It’s going to be incredibly comfortable. Every room will be the same temperature; there will be no cold spots near the windows or doors or anywhere. It’s going to be incredibly quiet.”
Though there’s still a lot to be done, the Pratts hope to move in around late June.
Editor’s note: This story previously published in the May/June edition of Summit County Home magazine.
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